Skip to content

Change Agent?

An audio icon Will Obama be a one-term president? Will Republicans wander in the wilderness?

To consider these and other questions about the Obama administration's impact on politics as usual, and its potential for success, Cascade brought together five UO political scientists in a roundtable discussion.

An audio icon Listen to the entire discussion online.

A comment icon

Read the Cascade cover story.

A comment icon

Read the speaker bios

A comment icon Read excerpts from the Q&A that followed the moderated discussion:

Will Obama be a one-term president?

Will Republicans wander in the wilderness?
What’s the intersection between economic stimulus and defense spending?
What does the war on terror look like now?
What place do neoconservatives have in the Obama coalition?


Question: I was a very avid Obama supporter and I’m worried about the high expectations and the over–hyped promises of change and hope. Does America realize that his agenda can’t be accomplished in a year? What is the possibility of a one-term presidency?

Jane Cramer: There is a high possibility of a one-term presidency.  If Obama can’t fix the financial crisis, he’s probably out of there.  But always keep in mind that it depends on who the opposition is. Nobody expected Bush would win a second term, but the opposition was not up to the mark. So, if the other side fields a bad candidate and can’t get their act together — if they’re still lost in the wilderness because of the financial crisis … well, they don’t have answers either, so who knows?

Joe Lowndes: Obama has a reserve of goodwill, and one of the interesting things about his approval ratings being so high is that not only do people hold him in very high regard, but they had decided to be patient with him. There’s a strong sense of personal identification with him as is evident in the famous Shepard Fairey lithograph – and its rendering in the FaceBook application that allowed people to digitally remake themselves in his image. There’s a devotion to him that we have not seen since Reagan. He also is adored around the world. Although the polls show that love for Obama doesn't translate into love for America.

Dan Tichenor:
I would be shocked if Obama doesn’t win re-election. I think he doesn’t have to solve the economic problem; he has to show that he’s trying and register some successes legislatively. The fact that he’s following a president who was such an unmitigated disaster is going to provide him with such broad political stock that it would take something really catastrophic in terms of his own mistakes for him to implode.

Dan HoSang: I do think that his whole political life rests on a proposition of a new approach, and that’s where he’s vulnerable. If he can be stigmatized and marginalized, the line would be “We were sold the false bill of goods,” right? But I actually think he’s quite astute about understanding, even symbolically, politics as consumption, and I don’t mean that in a dismissive way. He understands that we trade in symbols, and as long as the symbols keep coming and we’re in dialogue with him, the proposition will seem real enough.

Dennis Galvan: I’m waiting for the political deployment — in a tactical, everyday governing way — of his magic: of his persona, his charm, what he means to us, in a way that’s going to help him win policy battles. I’m surprised we haven’t seen it yet, and I think it’s going to have to happen very, very soon. If he doesn’t figure out how to deploy it in an everyday way, bad things might happen.

Cramer: The image that comes to mind of the one-term president is Jimmy Carter. He follows on Nixon and Ford, who were hated. Carter’s charming, he’s got the peanut, he’s got the smile, people love him, but he’s facing a big financial crisis. I think it’s little known, but his peace efforts in the Middle East with Israel and Egypt were his main undoing. His efforts rallied the forces to kill détente — namely the neo-cons who hated peace in Israel: They undid Jimmy Carter and brought on the Reagan militarized revolution. I think peace in the Middle East is dangerous. Obama could be undone by people who know how to undo people.

Galvan: Well, unlike Carter, he doesn’t have the Mr. Rogers sweater. And I would throw out a few additional things: One, indeed Obama is inexperienced but he had time in Washington and I would not underestimate those years in the Senate.  Likewise, look at who he’s appointed around him — it’s not a Georgia mafia. Also, you’re right that Carter followed Nixon and Ford, and we could invoke a comparison in terms of presidents who are considered failed. But if you look at the broader political and partisan regime, the argument you would get from a number of leading presidential scholars is that Carter came at the end of a New Deal coalition when it was really coming apart at the seams, whereas now we may be actually bringing flowers to the grave of the Reagan coalition. So that would suggest the analogy that he’s following potential a Hoover in this regard. But the bigger question is his governing philosophy — the vagueness of it — and that does raise challenges for him.


Question: Whether Obama will be a successful president or not depends a lot on how the Republican Party reacts or responds to his agenda and policies, so I was wondering of you have any insight about what the future reaction is likely to be.  Will they move to the center to co-opt his agenda or are they going to fight until he loses his popularity?

Lowndes: I think the GOP is schizophrenic at the moment. There has been a fight among Republicans since the election about why McCain lost and what this means of the party now. Many Republican strategists and pundits think that the country no longer wants to hear hard conservative rhetoric. But the institutions with the money claim that McCain lost because he didn’t go far enough to the right. So there are a lot of resources that will go that direction through organizations like Heritage Foundation; as well as people like Rush Limbaugh who has 20 million listeners a day. There was also this interesting fight over who was going to become the RNC [Republican National Committee] chair. You had two black candidates and two white candidates. Michael Steele, who they ultimately went with, is more of a moderate on questions of abortion and other issues. I think it is unclear which direction the party will choose, although given recent skirmishes in Congress, it appears that conservatives have the upper hand.

Galvan: Joe, you once very convincingly explained to me — and actually your book does this too — how the Goldwater moment for the Republicans was incredibly important for launching a generation of success that they ultimately had: How they went out into the wilderness and purified themselves and found a kind of principled core and lost badly in 1964 standing for that. And yet that laid the foundation for the Reagan Revolution and Gingrich and the eventual takeover of Congress. So, does that mean that now the Republicans need to follow Rush out into the wilderness and purify out all of these heretical moderates and find a principled core that will serve them fifteen years from now?

Lowndes: Yeah, I think so, but I don’t think the result will be conservatism. These things are historically contentious. Before, it was the wilderness of the New Deal they had to wander through, to find allies around specific points of contention — segregation being one of the biggest ones, as well as opposition to New Deal programs in terms of growth of the Federal State and national power and presidential power. I do think they will have to find some coherence that they don’t have now. It’s certainly interesting that, even all the way back to the primaries, the Republicans were unable to field even one consistently conservative candidate. Mike Huckabee was the closest, and he was actually far more liberal on foreign policy and on domestic social policy than anybody else. And they all kept evoking Reagan — but it seemed like the more they evoked Reagan the less convincing it was that Reagan was somebody who could make them cohere.


Question: How do you see the economic downturn affecting the proliferation issue?  And second, in talking about the end of the Reagan revolution, I wonder how much Obama may need the Republicans to put the last nails in that coffin as opposed to him coming forward with a more direct role and doing it himself.

There’s no such thing as a clear regime change in American politics. With each new shift in politics, new changes always carry with them lots of what you’d think might be left behind. Obama synthesizes a lot of Reaganism, a lot of things from the last 30 years, generally. Clinton did it baldly.  Obama does it in more interesting ways, but sometimes in ways that are really discursively fuzzy — referring to “spending” as “investments,” for example.

HoSang: I think Reagan would very much recognize Obama’s kind of governing principles.  Reagan embraced deficit spending, right?  In the Reagan era, the safety net was as small as it had ever been and in no way prepared to deal with the crisis. There was no consensus to address it, so Reagan emphasized the military’s role in boosting the economy. It wasn’t spending per se. 

Lowndes: But you need a demonization — both internal and external — with Reagan. He demonized people of color and the poor in ways that I don’t think you’ll see with Obama, and he demonized other people in the world in a way that I don’t think you’ll see now. And he needed these people to stand in the way of his project to make it work — the Reagan Revolution in part was created by negation, not just by the positive. 

HoSang: There are so few entitlements left to demonize so that’s kind of a moot question.

Cramer: But they’re going to spend $850 billion and almost none of it on defense.  If you do security studies, you can compare countries that invest in defense versus countries that invest in other things. If you actually do things with schools and roads and other infrastructure, they help the economy grow. Defense helps a little bit, but it doesn’t return in the same way. Reagan did deficit spending , but he did it almost all in defense. He kills the safety net we’re talking about expanding. 

HoSang: But the defense budget is so much larger even than in his days. His vision of a robust defense budget has been fully realized.

Cramer: I’m not saying we are going to have this huge unmilitarization, but there is going to be a big switchover. About half of the stimulus package is going to be diverted. He has choices:  inflation, taxing, or shifting the money over to programs for job creation. He doesn’t want to raise taxes and he doesn’t want to do inflation, and in terms of job creation, you get eight domestic jobs for every one defense job.


Question: Does the Obama administration spell a change in the war on terror outside the two existing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Galvan: If you spread out your question over a long period of time, over a generation or two, I would say absolutely yes.  Obama’s approach is strategically really different than the Bush preventative war approach. You take very neutral countries like Niger or Mali or Chad — which are actually quite important when we look at the map of where Al-Qaida and its allies are moving, where there’s the most open space in terms of weak states  — and since 2003 we’ve been losing support in those counties. We were alienating a generation or perhaps two. The Obama administration — if it just maintains a posture of dialogue — will make a difference in slowing down terrorist recruitment in places like Algeria or Chad. Yes, the proof is ultimately in the pudding.  But it matters a lot in Africa whether the U.S. seems to stand for — just blatantly, nakedly stands for — the occupation of a central country in the Arab-Muslim world for reasons that are completely inscrutable and change every three months. Just signaling that the U.S. will really get out of Iraq will make a huge difference in parts of Africa that could otherwise breed extremism.

I have no concrete evidence of this yet and it sounds a little starry eyed, but I actually believe it. My instincts tell me it’s true, based on what I see on the ground.   
Cramer: You’re not the only one, though. The Europeans have been screaming this, our Arab allies have been screaming this: The worst thing for terrorist recruitment is to go there and the best thing is to come home. If you bomb civilians, you get Al-Qaida recruits. RAND Corporation, which is not some liberal think tank, put out a huge report just weeks ago saying, “the best thing in the war on terror to help stop recruitment is to get out of the region.” This is what the Europeans have argued since the day after 9/11: “We know terrorism; we’ve been dealing with it for a long time. It’s an intelligence problem; it’s a police problem. It is not a military problem. This is just a few guys, so you need hearts and minds, and cooperation from governments all over the world.” That’s where Obama’s going.

Galvan: Just a coda to that: As much as I don’t like the Darfur genocide, if we put American boots on the ground in Sudan, it would be a major boost for recruitment for Al-Qaida and other groups. It’s not whether it’s a just war or not; it’s American troops on the ground in Arab and Muslim territories. Unacceptable.


Question: Now that the neo-conservatives are out of power, which direction will the ideology evolve to? And what is the nature of the Obama coalition?

HoSang: The coalition actually very much includes neo-conservative interests. I haven’t heard a signal rejection of them. Their imprint appears deeply on all the policies, they are told they are going to be invited to the table and they’ll stage some confrontations, but actually I do see Obama’s approach as more of a synthesis that they have been incorporated into.

Galvan: But I think there’s a slight difference, which may matter quite a bit, between the neoconservative ideology of the last 10 years and the Obama administration signaling “America as defender and promoter of freedom” — which I agree is quite consistent with the past and we are seeing the same sort of goals, but we are also seeing a shift that emphasizes cooperation: “if you unclench your fist we’ll reach a hand out to you,” right? We are going to pursue our goals in cooperation with Europe, with our major allies, with our trading partners.

HoSang: That’s true, but if we frame the question in terms of “What is the fate of U.S. empire? What is the fate of the U.S. military/industrial complex?” then I think there’s some limitation we have to put on what those differences mean. 

Cramer: It’s striking, however, that neoconservatives are the ones who truly hate treaties and we are definitely going in the direction of a lot of treaties. In fact, many neoconservatives are saying “I never was a neoconservative” and others are saying “Well, I might have been for war on Iraq, but I never would have done it this way. I actually was advising something else.” So there is a huge split in the cohesiveness among them, and this creates an opening on topics such as weapons in space. It’s never been debated openly by Congress, but we were spending $30 billion a year under the Bush administration on weapons in space to knock out China satellites, etc. and now there is a direct questioning of the need to spend that money.

Back to Top

Online Extras

Change Agent?

An audio icon Will Obama be a one-term president? Will Republicans wander in the wilderness?

Oregon Economic Index

Thumbnail image for comment_icon.gifGet a direct link to this essential bellwether for today's economy.

Collider Questions

Thumbnail image for btn_video_color_fixed.gifWorried about black holes? Or just curious how the Large Hadron Collider works?

Arts, Aesthetics and Audacity

photo_icon.gifSee a slideshow of Jeff Koons sculptures at Versailles.

"Bearing the Body" Excerpt

Read the first chapter of the novel that won the 2008 Ken Kesey Award.

All Things Darwin

btn_video_color_fixed.gif Watch Darwin talks, read an essay by the "Weird Science" professor.

Dr. Jekyll Meets His Match

Thumbnail image for comment_icon.gif Read about a real-life "multiplex personality" in the Trauma Archives

Theater Student Tells All

Thumbnail image for comment_icon.gifGet a student's perspective on the Robinson Theatre renovation.

Alumni Confidential

Thumbnail image for comment_icon.gif Direct links to theater alumni featured in this issue of Cascade.